Bush to Iraq: Lost in Translation

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In an atypically subversive editorial decision, CNN followed its live broadcast of President Bush's Tuesday night press conference by crossing to Baghdad, where correspondent Jim Clancy parsed the President's words from the Iraqi perspective. His comments were brief but incisive: Iraqis don't buy all this talk of Iraq as having been a threat to the U.S. They know President Bush chose this war, and they don't share his upbeat assessment of its achievements thus far, or find reassurance in the vagueness of his political plans for Iraq.

CNN's brief exercise in examining the President's remarks through the Baghdad lens is worth exploring in more depth, because the resulting disconnect may explain a lot about the problems confronting U.S. soldiers and administrators in Iraq.

Some of the President's remarks, offered a refreshingly candid view of the situation in Iraq: "They're not happy they're occupied," he noted. "I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either." And many Iraqis would certainly welcome his commitment to grant them freedom to choose their own government — even if they grumble about the absence of practical arrangements in that regard right now. Other comments were more likely to have a jarring effect. His anguish at seeing dead Americans in Iraq on his TV screen falls flat, since the dead bodies seen on Arab TV broadcasts in Iraq are those of civilians killed in the course of U.S. military operations, which create a certain skepticism among Iraqis over the President's claim that the U.S. is taking "the greatest care to avoid harming innocent civilians."

The discordant notes really begin in President Bush's opening statement: "Some remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime, along with Islamic militants have attacked coalition forces in the city of Fallujah," he explained. But ordinary Iraqis appear to have a different view of the events at Fallujah, according to the Washington Post's richly-deserving Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid.

Having told America that the enemy it confronts in Fallujah consists of former regime elements and radical Islamists, Bush then announced that the Iraqi Governing Council is "communicating with the insurgents to ensure an orderly turnover of that city to Iraqi forces, so that the resumption of military action does not become necessary. They're also insisting that those who killed and mutilated four American contract workers be handed over for trial and punishment." Indeed, but the fact that negotiations are underway to restore order without military action suggests that the enemy being confronted is far more deeply rooted in the community than President Bush's characterization suggests. Moreover, IGC members negotiating in Fallujah told the media that the U.S. had dropped the demand for the surrender of those who killed the four in an effort to find a solution.

President Bush also seemed unwilling to recognize what was glaringly obvious about the failure of a battalion of the new Iraqi security forces to show up on the battlefield at Fallujah. "If they're lacking equipment, we'll get them equipment," he said. "If there needs to be more intense training, we'll get more intense training." But the issue was not training or equipment — the men of the 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi Armed Forces made their reason for disobeying the order to go to the embattled town abundantly clear: "We did not sign up to fight other Iraqis," they told a U.S. officer. That's a political sentiment, and it appears to be spreading.

In explaining the need for tough action, President Bush said that "our coalition is standing with responsible Iraqi leaders as they establish growing authority in their country. The transition to sovereignty requires that we demonstrate confidence in Iraqis, and we have that confidence." But not enough confidence to actually consult with these "responsible Iraqi leaders" over how to handle the problems in Fallujah or with the Sadrists. Iraqi Governing Council leaders were so infuriated by the conduct of the U.S. forces that two of them quit and others threatened to follow suit in protest, while one of the IGC's rotating Presidents, Adnan Pachachi, denounce the U.S. action in Fallujah as "illegal and unacceptable."

And the disconnect between U.S. military actions that have been widely condemned across the Iraqi political spectrum and the "responsible leaders" to whom the U.S. would like to hand some form of symbolic "sovereignty" on June 30 is particularly worrying, since whatever leadership assumes the role of interim government won't have any control over U.S. military operations in the country. (Which is why use of the term "sovereignty" is something of an exaggeration.)

President Bush remained firm on the hand-over date, though because Iraqis "do not support an indefinite occupation," and delaying the date would lead Iraqis to "question our intentions and feel their hopes betrayed." It did not help inspire confidence, of course, that the President could offer no answer to the question of to whom "sovereignty" would be handed on June 30: "We will find that out soon. That's what [UN envoy] Mr. [Lakhdar] Brahimi is doing; he's figuring out the nature of the entity we'll be handing sovereignty over." Brahimi announced the following day that he would recommend that the Iraqi Governing Council be dissolved on June 30, and that interim authority be handed to a caretaker government whose primary function would be to organize elections for January of next year, when Iraq would finally get a legitimate government. Brahimi's boss, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, continues to cast doubt over whether the security situation will allow the hand-over to proceed.

Curiously, while the President appeared unable to think of any mistakes his administration may have made in Iraq or elsewhere, Brahimi was forthright in criticizing the U.S. "de-Baathification" program in Iraq for alienating Sunnis and ousting badly needed professionals. Other "responsible Iraqi leaders" have cited failings that range from disbanding the Iraqi army while not having enough troops there to provide security, failure to plan for the postwar to the disastrous decisions to simultaneously declare war on the city of Fallujah and take down Moqtada Sadr. To name a few.

Of greater concern, though, is the disconnect between President Bush's world view and that of his Iraqi charges. For example, Bush's indictment of Muqtada Sadr, the rabble-rousing young cleric whose militias have challenged the U.S. in Baghdad and across the Shiite south: "He has assembled some of his supporters into an illegal militia, and publicly supported the terrorist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah. Al-Sadr's methods of violence and intimidation are widely repudiated by other Iraqi Shia." Well, yes, Muqtada has certainly assembled his supporters into an illegal militia, but just about every significant political faction in Iraq has one of its own. As for his public support of Hamas and Hezbollah, President Bush may be surprised to learn that most Iraqis would almost certainly join with Moqtada in supporting groups perceived as having stood up to Israel. Indeed, the recent assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin drew universal condemnation from across Iraq's political spectrum, even from the "responsible leaders" of the IGC. Yassin's death became the rallying point that fused Shiite and Sunni anger even before Fallujah, and the brutal slaying of the four American private guns in that town was proclaimed by its perpetrators as a reprisal for Yassin's death. The President may like to imagine that Iraqi hostility to Israel was a product of Saddam's regime, but it may be more accurate to say that the popularity of anti-Israel sentiment among Iraqis, and among the Arab citizenry more generally, was the reason Saddam worked so hard to claim the mantle of Israel's most intractable Arab enemy.

President Bush is certainly correct that Muqtada's violence and intimidation are widely repudiated by other more senior Shiite clerics, but those who repudiate Moqtada have also strongly denounced the U.S. actions against him and warned Washington against acting on its promise to capture or kill him. Just as the killing of Sheikh Yassin provoked outrage even among many who didn't necessarily support Hamas's strategy, it's a safe bet that killing Muqtada would earn far greater enmity towards the U.S. than the firebrand's narrow support base.

Part of the disconnect, here, seems to be cultural. Is Senator Bob Kerrey the only one in Washington concerned about the impact of an occupation mission that deploys "a largely Christian army in a Muslim nation"? Such sensitivities don't appear to have reached the White House, when President Bush explains that his decision to invade Iraq was based on his sense of "calling" from the "Almighty" to spread freedom. That may play well with the base at home, but in Iraq — well, let's just say that Bob Kerrey has good reason to be worried.